The FIFA World Cup and 'Banal Nationalism'

Dr Renan Petersen-Wagner

What source of information do fans rely on to be in touch with their favourite club or national team?

First published, 26/06/2018 on CarnegieXchange: School of Sport/blog

I want to focus on one aspect touched upon during my PhD thesis (see Petersen-Wagner, 2015); the source of information that fans relied on to be in touch with their favourite club or national team. In my thesis, and subsequently in my Current Sociology piece (see Petersen-Wagner, 2017a) I showed how transnational fans - or the ‘cosmopolitan flâneurs’ as I have named them (see Petersen-Wagner, 2017b) - tend to rely on ‘local’ media to keep informed about Liverpool FC. Focusing on fans from Brazil and Switzerland, they preferred to read newspapers and blogs, or watch English (not just English language) TV channels to exhibit the banal cosmopolitanisation I was investigating. Banal here should be understood as an everyday expression of what we do, what we read or watch in regards of media, how we speak in regards of how we understand ourselves and others, and ultimately who we support. For instance, the English Premier League – where Liverpool FC plays – reaches over 200 countries and connects unquantifiable number of people around the world (see Hayton, Millward and Petersen-Wagner, 2017), providing a platform for an expression of banal cosmopolitanism, as with Swiss and Brazilians supporting Liverpool FC.

In the recent days of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and pursuing this idea out of curiosity, I watched different games on a variety of official broadcasting channels; games in French (TF1), Portuguese (Globo - Brazil), Spanish (TeleCinco - Spain; and TeleMundo - USA), English (ITV and BBC), and also in Swedish (SVT) and Russian (Channel 1) [not that I could understand much of the last two]. But what hit me while watching the games I could fully understand the commentaries was the banal nationalism of what was being said. There was a clear “we” (superior) versus “the other” (inferior) in what was being communicated; “nation” and “national identities” commonly featured in the comments, as with the commentaries provided by Danny Murphy during England’s 6-1 win over Panama (see The Independent, 2018). Light “jokes” abounded about the differences in playing style.

Here are two examples of this banal nationalistic discourse. First, French commentators said the Australians were getting confused with the type of football they were actually playing (Aussie Rules v Soccer). Second, TeleMundo commentators said that Dusan Tadic (Serbian footballer) played more like a South American than an European (I have discussed this apparent dichotomy in an upcoming book chapter on South American football - the pre-print version can be found here).

While my previous research showed how people could get together through football (banal cosmopolitanism), now my experience of watching the World Cup on different national channels might actually be showing the opposite (banal nationalism). Following my previous post, I streamed the Twitter interactions with different national official broadcasters (Australia, Brazil, Germany, France, Mexico, Argentina, Spain, United Kingdom, Italy, Holland, Portugal) to see who would interact with them.

This visualisation shows a clear predilection for fans to follow and interact with media presented in a similar language. So, the blue ‘community’ is English-speakers, the orange speak Spanish, pink is Portuguese, burgundy is French, the brown German. The green ‘community’ had no added information about their language on Twitter (interesting that Cristiano Ronaldo, the official FIFA World Cup, and the Portuguese national team are part of this community). As neither Italy nor Holland qualified, the interactions were minimized and they cannot be seen. Interestingly, the profiles around those bigger nodes (normally the official broadcasters) tended to be mostly from the same expected language, reinforcing this idea of a banal nationalism.

All this makes me question some key assumptions as about the World Cup. Is it really a global event? Perhaps, it represents multiple events re-interpreted through the lenses of those national broadcasters. Is it in FIFA’s interest to maintain such different ‘language-communities’ operating through banal nationalist discourses? Does this increase the media appeal of the games as it creates national rivalries? Might the ‘commentaries’ be standardised similarly to what happen to the images broadcasted? Would streaming and VPN-connections alter the sport broadcasting landscape by providing opportunity for fans to watch different channels? Are streaming and VPN-connections the best options for creating a sense of global belongingness akin to cosmopolitanism? Those are all important questions to be answered in future academic investigations.

Dr Renan Petersen-Wagner is a Senior Lecturer in Sport Business and Marketing at the Carnegie School of Sport.


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